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Reading Iowa's Voters

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Reading Iowa's Voters

Election 2008

Reading Iowa's Voters

Reading Iowa's Voters

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The winners of the Iowa caucuses are nearly impossible to predict, if the past is any guide. NPR's Scott Simon talks to Ann Selzer, who directs the Iowa poll for the Des Moines Register, about the state's Jan. 3 presidential caucus.


Candidates of both parties debated one last time in Iowa this week before the January 3rd presidential caucuses there. The outcome of the Iowa caucuses has always been notoriously difficult to predict partly because of the distinctive nature of the process, also because voters there tend to change their minds right up to the last moment.

One person who has had some success in trying to read Iowa voters is Ann Selzer. She directs the Des Moines Register's Iowa poll, and joins us from the studios of Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines. Ms. Selzer, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. ANN SELZER (President, Selzer & Company): It's great to be with you.

SIMON: What makes the caucuses so difficult to handicap?

Ms. SELZER: First, you have to realize not that many people show up for these caucuses. We're expecting a record-breaking crowd on the Democratic side; that might mean a hundred and fifty thousand out of our 1.9 million, and on the Republican side, maybe a hundred thousand showing up. So you are looking to find people who think that they are on their way to the caucuses on January.

SIMON: Let me ask you about what's often referred to as the phenomenon of peaking too early. Howard Dean, most recently comes to mind. Does that really happen?

Ms. SELZER: It definitely happens. In 2004, we went into the field just six days before caucus day and we were showing, on that first day, four candidates clustered within 6 percentage points of each other - a very tight race. And by the end, we saw two candidates move upward; that was John Kerry and John Edwards. And two candidates moved downward - Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt. And I have carried this graph around to show the press. I refer to this as the Register Graph of Doom for Howard Dean because it clearly show there wasn't any way he was going to win on caucus night. But we did not know that just six days before.

SIMON: It was noted that the debates in both parties, this last week, were pretty tame compared to some other appearances. To what degree do you think debate appearances inform the voters of Iowa? Or are they in the extraordinary position of seeing the candidates firsthand at the state fair in their communities, if nothing else, on the local nightly news so that they don't really need the debates in the same way the rest of the country might feast off of them?

Ms. SELZER: You get a chance to see interaction, get a much closer and time comparison, and really see how they are doing side by side.

SIMON: You could make a pretty distinguished list of people who have won the Iowa caucuses and then lost their party's nominations, couldn't you?

Ms. SELZER: You could. There's Dick Gephardt who won in 1988.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. SELZER: Bob Dole won in '88. Neither of those two went on to win the nominations ultimately.

SIMON: I covered an Iowa caucus that was run by George Bush. However, Ronald Reagan first enjoyed eight years as president. That wasn't the year that Mr. Bush was elected.

Ms. SELZER: Exactly. And so it's not as much historically about the true winner as the people who do better than they are expected to do, and that becomes the story. To be perfectly honest, if Barack Obama wins the caucus, there's less of a bump for him than if John Edwards wins or Joe Biden wins. But if you meet expectations, it doesn't help you so much as if you defy expectations.

SIMON: Has any candidate running for president in Iowa, to the best of your knowledge, refused a bite of the corndog and has it caused them politically?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SELZER: Or to hold a baby pig. I think, as for corndog, Joe Lieberman refused.

SIMON: Oh, well, he has dietary reasons, certainly, yes. But…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SELZER: And it's a little hard to see Giuliani with a food on a stick, isn't it? He's basically bypassed Iowa, so people can't really envision him anywhere here.

SIMON: Well, Ms. Selzer, thanks so much.

Ms. SELZER: You're very welcome. It's been my pleasure.

SIMON: Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Company that is public opinion research. She directs the Iowa poll and spoke with us from Des Moines.

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